When I was younger there'd be a little ritual outside school on a Monday morning. We'd gather round and invariable somebody would say, "how'd you get that?" pointing to a plaster on a finger, a small scratch on a forehead, or a skinned elbow. Rarely, it would be a bright white cast on an arm, with folks queuing up to sign it.
The skinned elbow may have been earned sliding into third base at a tense softball game; the broken arm was acquired by falling out of a tree somewhere in the "woods" - the harmless scratch came from cycling under the branches of a willow tree during a race. By the end of the week, all evidence of these minor scratches had disappeared. It took a little longer, but even that cast would eventually go, the graffiti covered remains saved with some pride in a box somewhere.
Do young people get scrapes and scratches anymore?
A couple of years ago The Atlantic Monthly published an article about how both parents and policy-makers were over-protecting young people to their detriment. Parents stopped letting their children go outside unsupervised, and local councils tore down playgrounds that even suggested injury. Paradoxically such interventions may actually get in the way of young people developing the requisite skills they'll need later in life. Curiosity, adventure, and assessing risk in the real world are crucial skills for anyone growing up in any decade.
Today, however, not only do we find that parents and institutions are risk-avoidant to the point of covering everything in bubble wrap, but that young people are keeping themselves safe from actual risk by spending most of their "adventure time" in front of screens instead of out and about. Whether it's a binge on an exciting new Netfix series or engaging in the virtual dangers of an online game, it's usually happening on a sofa.
Your average 16 year old is more likely to suffer repetitive strain injury than a sprained ankle.
New research by the National Citizen Service (NCS), the country's flagship youth programme, shows that young people simply aren't getting the "real world" adventures that my generation took for granted. More and more young people are going online to get their adventures rather than the real world ones from which we learn so much.
While nearly fifty percent of teenagers reportedly consider themselves adventurous or brave, such bravery is more likely to be expressed in a virtual war or watching a scary Netflix programme than climbing a tree. Fully one third of boys and a quarter of girls reported that they get most of their "adventures" online, with a third of boys believing that an online adventure is as good as one in real life.
When asked what sorts of experiences changed their lives things like watching a new series on Netflix, completing a level on a video game, or discovering face swapping apps came out as top examples!
Despite the draw of these technologies, tellingly, nearly 60% of respondents said that they'd try more "new" activities if the opportunity were there. We can't lay all the blame for today's teens' reluctance to seek adventure out in the world squarely on tech.
Opportunities to have adventures in the real world are necessary to assess risk, celebrate real successes, and learn from mistakes. These experiences help to develop skills for the future. Experiences like these also teach that small failures and skinned elbows aren't the end of the world, and that makes us more resilient.
To be clear, minor injuries certainly aren't requirements learning such things! However, the fact that you can't skin your knee in a video game is absolutely crucial. You see nobody wants to skin their knees, but the fact that it could happen means that we have to take special care to prevent it: that's where the learning happens. In these adventures we don't just learn to prevent skinned knees, but a whole variety of psychological, emotional, and interpersonal skills.
Opportunities to explore the world in a safe-enough way still exist (in fact NCS offers them to all 16 and 17 year olds in England and Northern Ireland). Now it's up to those young people, their parents, and the rest of us to let them (and perhaps nudge them) to take those opportunities that we know will not only build resilience and confidence, but most of all, memories that will last a lifetime.